College’s computer-science diversity a lesson for tech firms

The typical computer-science graduating class at an American university is less than 20 percent female.

At Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., women make up 54 percent of the class of 2016.

The experience of the private, 829-student school may not provide a complete road map for the rest of academia, but Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd’s president for the past 10 years, says it carries lessons for other organizations.

Klawe, 65, is no stranger to the Northwest. She taught for 14 years at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and sat for seven years on Microsoft’s board, stepping down last year.

It’s in that role that she shares a trivia-question link to Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella. At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2014, Klawe had an onstage conversation with Nadella in which the CEO made a widely derided comment that women need not ask for raises, but could trust the system would reward them fairly in time.

Nadella afterward quickly said his answer was incorrect, and Klawe thinks Nadella showed leadership in owning the mistake and taking new steps to encourage diversity among Microsoft’s ranks.

The results have been mixed so far, with the company disclosing last week that cuts to ex-Nokia units led to a second consecutive annual decline in the proportion of women Microsoft employs.

“I really like Satya a lot,” Klawe said in an interview. “He brings a lot of humility to what he does. He doesn’t need to win arguments, he’s eager to listen, eager to ask questions.”

An edited version of an interview with Klawe follows:

Q: What has worked in promoting diverse classes at Harvey Mudd?

A: One of the things we learned about recruiting is you really need to understand your population, and, once they get here, you need to create an environment that is supportive for them.

I know just from my own personal experience that people who are a member of an underrepresented group (are) less willing to ask for help, because you don’t want to reinforce somebody’s impression that women aren’t as good at math or whatever. We have to be much more focused on getting all of our students to think about getting help.

Q: Can academia’s progress be replicated in corporate world?

A: I gave a talk to a group of chief human-resources officers about what we had done at Mudd, and how I thought it would translate to companies that wanted to improve gender diversity in their tech workforce.

Ellyn Shook, chief of human resources of Accenture, came up afterward and said, “You’re giving me some really good ideas. We’re hiring 17,000 software engineers a year, and we’re coming in at 30 percent (female), and I think we could do better.”

I saw her four months later, she said, “We’re coming in at 32 percent. And all I did was change the way the job descriptions were written, change the interview process, and we recruited at women’s colleges as well as coed ones.” It didn’t cost her more money.

Do I think it can be done? Absolutely. Do I think it’s easy? No. Not because it’s expensive, it’s because it requires you to question your culture and be able to make some shifts.

Q: How do you evaluate Microsoft’s work on that front?

A: It’s interesting to me, because the two companies that have hired the largest number of our students in the last five years are Microsoft and Google. I would say for the most part, our grads who are working at those companies are very happy.

My sense of what happens at Microsoft is that, for many women who are hired, they’re in very supportive environments, and they’re happy for maybe their first 10 years, 15 years. Move up to the higher management levels? It tends to be a more adversarial, competitive culture, and that’s less good for them.

Q: That dynamic seems to have played out. Microsoft’s senior leaders are primarily white men. What’s their responsibility?

A: Diversity should not be a woman’s task. It should be everyone’s task. If you really want to have a diverse, inclusive environment, it’s got to be something that your white males care about just as much as other people.

The sooner that we get away from feeling that every woman has to be passionate about diversity, that’s just as crazy as saying that every single person has to be the champion of their own background. Everyone should be champions for diverse perspectives, broadly speaking.

Q: Intel made headlines by setting a public target for the diversity of its workforce. What do you think about such targets?

A: I was sort of skeptical until I met a number of people leading (Intel’s) diversity efforts. And then when they reported that they’d come in 40 percent (women and underrepresented minorities), I said wow, that’s awesome. They were just told to make it happen, and to try to figure out how to make it happen. There are pluses and minuses to setting a number. The minuses are sometimes, when you do that, your employees will interpret that you’d just hire anyone to get that number. You didn’t use the usual standards. And that’s bad.

Q: There’s been a lot of media focus of the tech industry’s diversity struggles. Is something new happening here or are people just paying more attention?

A: I think we are at an inflection point. My cynical self says it’s partly because there’s a great demand for software engineers, and so there’s a realization that if we could get more women and people of color to be successful in these areas, we’d address that shortage.

But I do think there’s just more of a discussion about it. And I feel really good about that.

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